Bicycle Heaven

No matter how many times I’ve visited cities in Europe, I’m always impressed at the conventions in place for bicyclists. This is especially true in Bruges, Belgium. We took a short detour there between Paris and Aix-en-Provence. It’s out of necessity, to be sure. Driving is so expensive – parking, tolls and the cost of gasoline (some would say the true cost) add up quickly, as we found out on a 500-km trip from Aix-en-Provence to Cahors on Saturday. Highway tolls for the journey added up to roughly €35, and even in our fuel-efficient, manual transmission Corsa hatchback, we spent about €65 on gasoline – that’s more than $7.50 a gallon, even with the declining value of the euro. Only a weekend special at Hertz (one day for €25) made it more economical to rent a car instead of buying two train tickets.

But to get back to the question of bicycles, cycling is often the most practical way to get around. Cities like Paris and Bruges (which we visited after Paris) are mostly flat; Montmartre in Paris is of course a big exception. Tightly concentrated city centers often make it quicker to pedal than get behind a steering wheel for short trips. Undoubtedly, the role cycling plays in mobilizing all segments of the population makes it easier to justify concessions to cyclists. Paris is dotted with ingenious bike rental stations – just swipe your

credit card and you can ride to anywhere else in the city where there’s another station for a euro or two an hour. In the States, well-established bike lanes and “sharrows” indicating that bicyclists can “share” the road with cars are heralded as pinnacles of bike friendliness. But what often happens is that sharrows are ignored and drivers often see the white line as a restriction to keep cyclists from impeding vehicle progress, rather than as a protected space for the cyclists, which they’re allowed to leave if they need to turn or there’s something in their way. Drivers in the U.S. show little consideration for bikers, I think because they’re seen as more of a nuisance rather than travelers on the road with equal rights.

To be sure, cyclists as a group bring a lot of this frustration on themselves. When bikers don’t follow the rules of the road – for example, ignoring stop signs, weaving in and out of traffic, riding the wrong way – drivers have little choice but to expect the worst from every two-wheeler they see. I wrote an article several years ago about an experienced cyclist who made a fatal mistake in not leaving his bike lane when he should have.

To deal with the ambiguity in how bicyclists behave and drivers react to them, Paris has detailed markings on the road to indicate exactly where cyclists should go. In the picture at the left, the arrows continue, leading bicycles into a safe left-hand turn at a busy intersection.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s difficult to retrofit streets designed expressly for cars with bicycle lanes, but this doesn’t hold much water when you realize that much narrower streets in Europe built centuries before those in America now support many times more cyclists than those in the U.S. probably ever will. In Bruges, they’ve managed this by giving cyclists more rights than drivers. On narrow, one-way (for vehicles) streets, cyclists zip in both directions. When things get clogged up and there’s no room to pass, drivers just wait. Outside the walls of the city, cyclists have a dedicated section of the sidewalk and their own lights to allow them to cross busy streets.

Obviously, this is something I feel strongly about, perhaps for a couple of reasons. One – cycling is just plain fun and great exercise. It’s no coincidence that Europeans, who rely more one walking and biking for transporation, have lower rates of obesity than we Americans (though this is changing). Two – few forms of transport are as egalitarian as cycling. For a fraction of the cost of an automobile, most of us can buy a bike that we can ride to work and use for errands. That means, with the right support system in place including good public transporation, the bicycle can be a tool for upward mobility between classes.

I think there’s a tendency when traveling to want to believe that everything new and different is better than the way you know. I certainly fall into that trap from time to time. In fact, exposure to new ideas one of the reasons I love to travel. After some reflection, you decide what practices are worth keeping and which you can do without. But in their approach to bikes, I think Europeans have it right.

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